Who are you as an artist?
A reader recently wrote me: “My question is about losing who you are as an artist or perhaps finding who you are…?” She had recently taken both realistic and abstract paintings in different mediums to a show. In the past she had sold all types but this time she made no sales. Other artists asked her, “Who are you as an artist?”
I sent her an answer but the question niggled away at me and I began to think more and more about it. In this blog, I’ll share some rambling thoughts on this topic of “Who are you as an artist?”
First off, what does that question mean? To me it means how do you see yourself as an artist. Not so much in the professional versus hobbyist way but in the sense of your current state of ease with your creative self. You may be in a place where you are totally comfortable with what you are doing e.g. painting watercolours of flowers. Or you may be trying to find your voice by trying out various mediums and subjects. Or you may be at a place of discomfort, knowing you want to move in a new direction but unsure how to do so or what the fallout will be.
I think we are continually looking for our voice as an artist. We may think we have found it when we have huge success producing a certain type of work but if we stay there because of that success, we stagnate and our voice falters.
Finding our artistic voice means continuing to explore new territory. It doesn’t have to mean going to the deepest darkest places (although it could), it may mean just going next door, in other words, picking up a different kind of brush. Doing the work is a priority. Painting and more painting will help find that voice.
The great artists moved where they were compelled to go. They followed the direction their work took them. Their well-known works often don’t reveal where they started in their artistic lives. We look at Picasso’s Guernica but we don’t see his incredible drawing skill unless we see his earlier Portrait of Aunt Pepa for instance.
Or we look at Matisse’s Dance (I) and are surprised to see he did work like Carmelina just a few years earlier.
Self-imposed expectations and super-imposed external expectations of what our art should look like can create a prison for our creativity. For instance, there is a huge compulsion to move towards recording something literally or even photographically. We sometimes work only towards this, not allowing our body of work or our internal yearnings to lead us in a new direction. Instead we impose the requirement of verisimilitude.
I often remark on and admire the work done by some artists from photos. (Note, many of these artists ARE doing their soul work in this way.) There is awe and appreciation from a person who says, “I love this painting – it looks just like a photo!”. Ironically, those who are masters of realism actually go way beyond a photo, revealing colours and details a snapshot would be unable to record. Reality is made even more real! This is why we are awed by these virtuosos. Examples of these artists are Richard Estes and Carol Evans.
Seeing these works makes me feel pulled, on the one hand, to rummage through my many photos and find one to work from. On the other hand, I also feel a sort of revulsion at going back to photos. Photos for me can give me comfort and safety but they no longer strike a chord of vitality whereas working from life or working from my own intuition has me at a more scary place but energizes me! With risk can come something extraordinary. Not all the time but it can happen. And this makes taking a chance so worthwhile! I speak from experience.
I have found that when I work from photos I am taken down that path of recording realistically, of copying what I see particularly when it comes to perspective and object/background relationships. I do bring my own voice to these works but I find the photo will dictate much, even as I am aware of it doing so. I haven’t worked from a photo in a couple of years now and that I’ve found liberating. I still love working from life be it a figure, a still life, a landscape en plein air.
Inside many artists is a yearning to move in another direction, away from realism. I often hear my students say ‘I want to be looser’ or ‘I want to use more colour’. What’s holding them back? Expectations and fear probably more than ignorance of technique.
I myself am on this very journey, to let my heart and soul speak now rather than only my mind and my ability to render a subject fairly realistically. (You can see my newest work in my last blog and also here.)
For a long time, I felt the need to express myself in a more abstract way, more intuitively, I wanted the work to be about the mark itself not what a collection of them represented. It took me some time to let go and be with that and try out painting abstractly. Yet there’s still a part of me that thinks that my being an artist is about being able to represent something accurately. Which is totally ridiculous especially when I think of the work of so many of the artists I admire eg. Mark Rothko and and Cy Twombly whose mature work is anything but a copy of nature!
It’s an interesting balance I now have between painting in a more realistic way and following a path towards abstraction. An exhibition of my work can show both (as seen in my Emergence show at Gallery 8 last year) and I worry that maybe the pieces look like they are done by different artists but the comment I usually hear (thankfully) is, “I can see you in all of them.” And that, for me, answers the question: who are you as an artist?
So paint from your heart. Listen to that inside voice that may want to take you elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to experiment and play with your ideas. No one need see these trials if they are indeed errors/failures (which, by the way, they may not be so don’t be too quick to judge!). But you will feel your creative soul fulfilled and that’s what’s important.
Sometimes you have to do the work that sells and if this fulfills you then great! But if there is a small voice inside you wishing and waiting to be heard then let it speak because by responding, you will grow as an artist. Letting that voice speak will tell you who you are as an artist.
These are just thoughts off the top of my head and I’d love to know yours!
Until next time,
PS. Having many different mediums and styles too can be a headache for the galleries BUT if Gerhard Richter, one of my favourite artists can pull it off, then so shall we!!